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4 Ways Large Urban Schools Can Improve School Climate

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Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS), is one of a few regular contributors to this space. This month, she has invited David White, principal at Burgess Peterson Academy (BPA), an elementary school in APS, to provide his perspective on social, emotional, and academic development in a large urban setting.

It's 8:05 a.m. at Burgess-Peterson Academy in East Atlanta, and students in every classroom join each other and their teachers in a circle near the front of the room. They check in with each other and prepare for the day ahead. They celebrate the small accomplishments of classmates or make amends for mistakes they may have made yesterday. They learn about assertive communication, explore empathy, and model ways to give and receive an appropriate apology.

Our students, faculty and staff are getting stronger by stretching their social and emotional muscles during this explicit circle time. They all are learning to be more intentional about self-management, self-awareness, and responsible decision making. This unilateral focus on social and emotional learning school-wide at the start of every day has enhanced and improved the culture of our learning community.

My school decided to implement social and emotional learning in the fall of 2016, the start of my second year. The timing was critical because of a tumultuous summer of heightened awareness of race relations and police activity. Our staff engaged in critical and sometimes difficult conversations with each other about the need to help our students make sense of what they saw on the news and discussed with their parents. We also felt an urgency to bolster our students with the vocabulary, skills, and emotional competence to make responsible decisions at school and out in the world.

aps 7.2.18.jpg

As I reflect on those first steps and where we are today, I want to share four strategies that have led to success at BPA:

  • Crystalize the Vision for Staff. It's imperative as a school leader to crystallize the vision for school improvement and prune the list of competing initiatives to focus on only a handful of key levers. At BPA, all of our professional development aligns with our "Big Three" goals for the school: the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, Orton-Gillingham structured literacy, and social and emotional learning.
  • All Hands on Deck
    BPA teachers have been extensively trained on our district-adopted PreK-8 social and emotional learning curriculum (Second Step), the importance of circles for building classroom community, and how to embed social and emotional skills into the instructional day. Our specialty staff are also trained in social and emotional learning and on the curriculum. Many of these teachers have infused the lesson materials into their own work with students, most notably our music teacher who uses the curriculum songs in her lessons. Building capacity of all adults who interact with our students is key.

  • Celebrate Strengths
    Each month, our entire student body and family guests gather in the gym for a school-wide morning meeting. Students from each homeroom select classmates who have demonstrated the social and emotional "core competency" for the month - skills like self-awareness, building positive relationships, and setting goals. These selected students are celebrated and given "brag tags" to add to their BPA lanyard. They love it!

  • Ensure Everything is Tied to Learning
    At BPS, we talk about the ways social and emotional learning can settle student minds and bodies so they are better prepared to use previously learned skills and acquire new knowledge. We message how our daily check-ins make students more ready to have thoughtful conversation and mini-debates with their classmates throughout the day because they're learning so much about each other. This has boosted our students' and our adults' sense of agency and ability to advocate for themselves - but it's also grown their capacity for empathy in ways I didn't expect. Many of our students have become so much more socially aware and so much more able to name their feelings and assertively, respectfully ask for the support or feedback they need.

The best part is this: we're seeing real results. On the district Gallup Q12 Survey given each year, our staff has grown from 45% engaged in the fall of 2015 to 63% engaged in the spring of 2018. Our Georgia Department of Education Climate Star rating has gone from 3 stars to 4 stars over the same period. This rating captures student, staff, and parent responses to surveys about our school culture and climate.

And in this busy time of year where I would normally be interviewing and hiring, my staff turn-over is practically nil. This year, every single classroom teacher is committed to returning this fall. I think that speaks volumes about people wanting to be here.

I am energized about the gentler, sweeter spirit our school community has taken on since increasing our focus on social and emotional learning, as well as the academic benefits from a learning environment that is supportive and meets the needs of all students. Year four, here we come!

Photo: BPA students collaborate on a math project. (Courtesy of BPA teacher Tanasha Mahone)

David White has spent the bulk of his 25 years as a public educator in the Atlanta Public Schools. Since 1996, his roles within APS have included teacher, staff developer, trainer, mentor, district administrator and elementary principal. Follow him on Twitter @dwhiteatlanta.

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